When he decided to become a foster parent for his grandson, Bill Johnson was given an ultimatum: give up your guns, or lose your grandson.
“If you want to care for your grandson, you will have to give up some of your constitutional rights,” Johnson alleges the Department of Health and Human Services caseworkers told him, in court documents published by The Washington Free Beacon. When he didn’t back down, they clarified: “There would not be a power struggle, that they would just take his grandson and place him in a foster home.”
Johnson is the last person you would want to say that to. He is an ex-Marine who loves the Constitution like he loves the Bible, as “the last book God wrote,” and his mild looks belie a fierce independence and a Marine’s steely resolve.
He’s had guns for most of his life, ever since he was 9 years old. His grandfather taught him how to shoot, and he does not plan to sacrifice his gun ownership just to satisfy some bureaucrats.
“I don’t know whether it was unfortunate or fortunate that they ran into me,” Johnson told the Independent Journal Review. “Because I don’t tolerate this sort of stuff from any agency.”
Bill and Jill Johnson are suing Michigan for the firearms restrictions placed on foster parents, arguing that the restrictions amount to an unconstitutional ban on firearms. They have joined the push to roll back regulations on foster parents' ability to bear arms, and the effects could ripple throughout the rest of the nation.
The Johnsons' suit is the third of its kind that is backed by the Second Amendment Foundation (SAF), a national advocacy group that uses the courts to broaden gun rights. The first suit against Oklahoma was dismissed in May because the state had abandoned its “weapons safety agreement.” The other suit will have a hearing in Illinois's courts next year, according to The New York Times.
Nor will the Johnsons' case be the end of the lawsuits. At least six more states will challenge similar firearms regulations, and the SAF hopes the court cases will strengthen second amendment rights throughout the nation, SAF founder and Executive Vice President Alan Gottlieb told IJR.
According to court documents, Michigan requires that firearms be kept “stored in a locked metal or solid wood gun safe” or trigger-locked in a locked area. Ammunition must be locked away in a separate location, and handguns must be registered.
The Johnsons argue that the requirements effectively disable a firearm’s use for self-defense. They live in a county where a “fast” police response time is 45 minutes.
“Our founders put in this little thing called the second amendment, not so we could hunt with guns but so we could protect our families,” Bill told IJR. “We are responsible for our own protection in this nation. I don’t depend on the police to do anything, especially in this county, and my wife depends on me to make sure that I keep her safe.”
Brian and Naomi Mason, the other two plaintiffs, have a similar feelings. They live in the middle of the woods, where they cannot see their neighbors’ houses, and Brian has had to run bears off of his property. He usually keeps firearms around, just in case, and in trapping season, when he leads bear hunts, he almost always has a gun on his person.
His lifestyle, where guns are an integral part of each day, made it impossible for the Masons to become foster parents under the firearm regulations, Brian said.
“Self-defense situations are something that happen immediately,” Brian told IJR. “If you have to find the key or do a combination in one room and then go over to the next room, you have essentially eliminated the operability of that firearm."
Most states regulate foster parents’ gun ownership. Requiring foster parents to store guns and ammo in separate locked locations is a fairly standard procedure, according to the New York Times.
“This isn’t about the right to act stupid. It’s not about leave it in the back seat, leave it on the night stand, leave it on the coffee table,” the Johnson’s attorney, David Sigale, told IJR. “It’s about people looking to exercise responsibility.”
The firearms restrictions are part of the standards meant to guarantee the safety of the children removed from unsafe homes, along with safety precautions such as smoke detectors, background checks and evacuations plans, said senior policy analyst at Children’s Rights, Elissa Hyne.
“It’s a privilege to be a foster parent, not a right,” Hyne told IJR. “These children deserve to be in safe placement, and in order to be a foster parent, there are certain things you must submit to that other people in the general public who are not foster parents do not.”
Gun control advocates say that the firearms restrictions ensure that foster children, many of whom are troubled, do not injure themselves or others. They contend that the best way to keep one’s family safe is to keep firearms out of the home in the first place.
“In a foster care situation, children are new to the home, they probably have been transient most of their lives, and it is just critical that guns be locked when not used and the ammo be locked separately,” Executive Director of the Michigan Coalition to Prevent Gun Violence Linda Brundage told IJR. “That is just common sense to me, and I think it would be horrible if this was overturned.”
The lawsuit, however, has transformed the debate over the restrictions. Equating safety precautions such as smoke alarms with firearms restrictions is no longer accurate or even relevant to the issue, said Executive Director of the National Foster Parent Association Irene Clements.
“When the constitutional piece got into it, it opened up a whole different way at looking at the issue. It’s not about child safety anymore,” Clements told IJR. “I’m sure that’s one component of it still, but it is about taking somebody’s constitutional right away from them, which is bigger.”
A spokesman for the Michigan agency declined to comment, citing ongoing litigation.